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Cha_Gio_Crispy_Shrimp_&_Pork_Roll_(©_Neil_Burger)_(1).jpg Neil Burger
The menu varies a bit from one location to the next, but, for example, the Houston restaurant features dishes such as cha gio crispy shrimp and pork roll for $15.

Upscale Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial debuts in Florida as part of national expansion

Restauranteurs Joe King and Rick Wahlstedt see growing potential in the Sunshine State

Since 1996, the 1920's-style Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial has been a staple in Chicago's dining scene. Now, 25 years later, owners Joe King and Rick Wahlstedt have decided to move south and bring the popular upscale restaurant to Florida, starting in Delray Beach this spring, and following that with an opening in Naples come fall. 

"Florida has become a very good market, it's gotten better and is now less seasonal," said Wahlstedt over the phone. "Our clients tend to have second homes in these markets, and [since the pandemic started], they stay longer than they used to, maybe because they don't have to go to the office [for work]."

King and Wahlstedt chose Delray Beach because they found it to be a vibrant, progressive town, and close to Palm Beach but without the abundance of tourists. 

"Customers come here to dine because of the lack of selection where they live, and I think it's only going to get better," said Wahlstedt. "We picked Naples [as the second Florida location] because we have such a great foothold in Chicago, loyal customers, and a lot of them have second homes in Naples."

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The first iteration of Le Colonial opened in 1993 in New York City. By 1996 the second Le Colonial opened in Chicago, and eventually the concept traveled to California, Texas, and Georgia. Today only three of the original spots remain, in Chicago (though it relocated), Houston (opened in 2016) and Atlanta (opened in 2019). A fourth location opened in 2022 in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Ill. Now, four more are slated to open in the next two years, two in Florida and the others in Denver and Scottsdale, Ariz. 

Wahlstedt said the new restaurants will look a bit different from the existing ones, with lighter and more colorful interiors that he said he hopes will draw a younger crowd.

"It's a very romantic restaurant, and people feel comfortable in it, and special. It's also a pull away from reality, like a movie set, and the food has gotten better and better," he said. "When you put it all together, it's how Le Colonial stayed relevant for so long, but I think it needed a refresh, a second look, if we were going to continue it. The bones are there, it just got an injection of new life."

Only about 30% of the decor has been altered, bringing the restaurant from 1993 into the 2020s. The furniture is still made of high-quality wicker, Vietnamese-style murals still decorate walls, light wood contrasts with the rich mahogany of the bar, and live plants bring splashes of green the space. 

Although many restaurant owners have pivoted to a more casual approach since the pandemic started, Le Colonial maintains its fine-dining approach to service, presentation, and price. 

Neil BurgerGio_Bo_Spicy_Beef_Carpaccio_Salad_(©_Neil_Burger).jpg

The menu varies a bit from one location to the next, but, for example, the Houston restaurant features dishes such as cha gio (crispy shrimp and pork roll for $15), tom xao sate (spicy shrimp stir fry for $32), vit quay (tea-cured roasted duck for $54), gio bo (spicy beef carpaccio salad for $23), ca song (spicy yellowfin tartare for $24), and sides including garlic green beans ($24) and shiitake mushroom sticky rice ($8). Overall a two-person meal, sans drinks ($8 for beer, cocktails are around $18), averages around $100. 

The desire for this kind of place for the people who have always been frequent customers of the restaurant hasn't changed, said Wahlstedt, who also runs the nationwide, upscale dining concepts Japonais, Le Bilboquet, La Goulue, L’Escale, and Artisan.

"If you do it well enough, and the food and service are good enough, and it's special enough, people will still come," said Wahlstedt. "The restaurant business and fine dining is as good as it's been, we had a record year [in 2022] and we will do it as long as it feels right."

One reason Wahlstedt gives for the success not just of Le Colonial but also for his other restaurants is how the place is presented. He wants guests to walk in and feel like they left their city behind and are taking a trip. In the case of Le Colonial, it's Saigon in the 1920s. And it's that vacation, Wahlstedt is banking on, which will have customers visiting the destination again and again, no matter where the restaurant is located. 

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